Wembley stage set for Ramsey’s Welsh wizardry

The influential player’s absence has made Arsenal hearts grow fonder

Arsenal’s Welsh midfielder Aaron Ramsey celebrates scoring the opener during the last week’s match against Norwich City at Carrow Road. Photograph: AFP

It is said sometimes that a player gets better when he is not on the pitch. It is said because he leaves a gap and those who stand in perform less well. The absent player's reputation grows accordingly. This season's version of Aaron Ramsey explains why people say this sort of thing.

Having signed for Arsenal from Cardiff City for €6 million in 2008, aged just 17, this is Ramsey’s third full season at the club since a leg-break at Stoke City four years ago. Ramsey was out for eight months and was sent on recuperative loans, first to Nottingham Forest, then back to Cardiff. He returned to Arsenal and played a few games at the end of the 2010-11 season.

The following season Ramsey played 44 games for Arsenal and last season 47. But if the broken leg had healed physically, Ramsey has said he was still carrying the injury around in his head. He could not get going at Arsenal, he scored only twice last season, three the season before. He amassed a small hill of negative criticism.

This season Ramsey has appeared in Gunners colours 33 times. There has again been an injury interruption. It came at Upton Park at Christmas during a victory over West Ham United that took Arsenal top of the Premier League.


Exceptional talent
Arsenal had won 12 of the 17 league matches after the opening-day trauma defeat at home to Aston Villa and Ramsey played in all of them. He scored 13 goals along the way. He was revealing weekly evidence of the prodigious teenage talent that had Arsenal chase him so enthusiastically, in order to beat Manchester United. Ramsey (22) was putting together a body of work that might have seen him named Footballer of the Year. All the critiques were positive.

Then, on his 23rd birthday, at West Ham, a thigh strain. Arsenal won the game 3-1 and led the table by one point from Manchester City. Arsene Wenger, witnessing Ramsey's development and the personality it added to his team, said that the injury would take weeks to heal. Or so Wenger hoped.

It took months. Ramsey did not return to the first team until April, by which time Arsenal had sagged and his influence had risen even higher through absence. Top of the table when Ramsey limped off in December, Arsenal were now fourth, 10 points off leaders Liverpool. Their one-point advantage had been over City; now it was over Everton, where Arsenal had just lost 3-0.

The good news for Wenger that day was Ramsey's second-half reappearance as a substitute. Better for Wenger was that as Everton slipped, Arsenal won their last five league games to finish fourth – Champions League etc – and Ramsey played in four of those. He scored another two goals, rounding off a league season with a special volley at Norwich last Sunday. One week before an FA Cup final, it said that Ramsey is back and ready. Hull City beware.

Familiar foe

Steve Bruce knows already about Ramsey, having seen him score the opener between the teams a month ago. But knowing about such a gifted player

is one thing, stopping him is another.

Hull City were Ramsey's starting point. In April 2007, four months after his 16th birthday, substitute Ramsey ran on in Bluebirds blue against Hull in a Championship match confirming Hull's narrow escape from relegation to the third division. Ray Parlour played for Hull that day. Dean Windass scored. Ramsey broke John Toshack's record as the youngest ever Cardiff player.

A year later Ramsey was the substitute again, this time in a match of rather greater distinction, the 2008 FA Cup final between Cardiff and Portsmouth. Hull and Wembley both feature on Ramsey’s CV. Something not on it, of course, is a winner’s medal. That is Arsenal’s collective failing, not Ramsey’s – he did not play in the 2011 League Cup final lost to Birmingham City. He was playing his last game on loan for Cardiff that weekend, at Hull.

But he and Arsenal have the opportunity to bring the trophy-less years to an end at Wembley today.

Ramsey, alongside Jack Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Kieran Gibbs, Carl Jenkinson and the injured Theo Walcott, have a young Anglo-Welsh core with experience and potential. What they need is silver fulfilment.

They are expected to beat Hull. And Ramsey said this week: "If we play the way we know we can, I'm sure we'll go on and win." It was understandable confidence from a justified favourite. Ramsey has had a difficult beginning to his Arsenal life but the 2013-14 version can prove he is the difference, not only while off the pitch.

Midfield duel: Meyler prepared for battle in Hull engine room
Aaron Ramsey is 23. David Meyler is 24. Ramsey has endured serious injury as has Meyler. This afternoon at Wembley they will collide in midfield and it will uplifting to see both and disappointing to witness one lose.

Like Ramsey, Meyler has had a stand-out season. Given that Meyler’s first knee injury was so bad – doctors were concerned about how he would walk, never mind run, shoot, twist and tackle – that today will be his 40th Hull City game of the season is fantastic.

He got a taste of Wembley in the semi-final against Sheffield United, when Meyler scored Hull's fifth in that goal-squall. He then had to worry about the consequences of his stamp on Manchester United's Adnan Januzaj 11 days ago, which came not long after Meyler said he was restraining his natural aggression: "I was too eager. I come from a massive GAA background. I have learned and I don't tackle half as much as I used to. I have matured."

That was on top of that touchline forehead confrontation with Newcastle United manager Alan Pardew in March. It has been one eventful season.

Meyler will be expected to be eventful today, too, but he and all Hull players will have to control their motivation. As Meyler said, it stems from Arsenal’s status as favourites and their attitude. The Londoners have already planned an open-top bus parade and, unfortunately for them, everyone knows about it.

“Obviously they [Arsenal] haven’t won a trophy in nine years,” said Meyler. “And they’ve got their posters up in London about their parade next week. I’d rather be the underdog.”

Arsenal’s plan has the potential to backfire. There have been many remarks this season about parking the bus. If Arsenal lose, prepare for some about missing the bus.